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In partnership with Karen Wellington Foundation

How cancer—and a trip to a lake house—restored one woman’s faith in humanity

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Lori Falke embraced a new identity and a new way to share this identity with others

Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

On a warm day in June 2016, Lori Falke, her husband Dan, and their three kids packed up and headed to Georgia to spend a week at a lake house on Lake Lanier.

Upon arriving, the owners of the lake house had left a table full of gifts to welcome the Falke family. There were custom monogrammed tote bags, beach towels, pocket knives, baseball hats for the boys, and big sun hats for the girls.

The lake house on Lake Lanier. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke
Monogrammed gifts for the family. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

“I was just in complete awe that strangers would allow us to use their vacation home and ask for nothing in return. They were beyond generous,” Falke says.

Throughout the week, Falke and her family went swimming, boating, jet skiing, and attempted to use a water jet pack. “On my gosh, that jet pack was so hard,” she says with a laugh. Falke’s parents even came down and spent a few nights at the house, as did some close friends who lived nearby. And the best part of all? No one talked about cancer.

Lori, her husband Dan, and their three children on the porch of the lake house. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

Falke is both a cancer survivor and one of the recipients of the Karen Wellington Foundation’s trips of a lifetime. The Karen Wellington Foundation (KWF) is a nonprofit organization that arranges vacations and experiences—like a lake house in Georgia—for individuals who are battling cancer.

But to tell Falke’s full story, and how she became a KWF recipient, we need to go back to the beginning of 2015.

Full steam ahead

A shining example of good health, Falke always ate healthy, exercised often, and regularly saw her doctor. But at this particular appointment in early January 2015, there was something suspicious in her mammogram results.

“When I was initially called back for a suspicious mammogram, I was fully convinced it was nothing,” she recalls. “I even told my husband ‘This happens all the time, no big deal.’”

But over the course of the next week, Falke would receive another mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, all of which would ultimately lead her to the final diagnosis: stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma.

Lori and Dan during a chemotherapy appointment. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

“I feel I’m a very outgoing, strong person but when you get a diagnosis like cancer, it stops you in your tracks,” Falke says. “At first, I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t be happening to me. I mean, there’s no cancer in my family. But after a couple of days I was like, ‘You know what? I just need to fight this and be done. Full steam ahead.’”

Pink laces to the rescue

Falke had her first surgery in February 2015, where doctors discovered that the cancer had spread from her breast and into her lymph nodes. Luckily, the surgery cleared most of it out, but Falke still had to attend regular chemotherapy appointments throughout March, April, and May, followed by six weeks of daily radiation starting in July. But come mid-August, Falke had completed her last round of radiation and was cancer-free.

“When I finished my treatments, I thought I would have this weight lifted off my shoulders. I had beat it,” Falke says. “But as it turns out, after I had finished everything, I realized that I was completely wiped out. I had been on autopilot for so long, and I remember crying to myself trying to fathom that this had just happened to me.”

During this time, Falke entered into a bit of what she calls a depressive state. She was a different person and didn’t know how to deal with it. Her identity was changing right before her eyes. She was slowly becoming something new—a cancer survivor.

It wasn’t until her son’s wrestling tournament a few weeks later that Falke was able to fully grasp what this new identity could mean. She was sitting in the stands watching the match when she noticed that one of the boys had pink shoelaces on.

Pink laces to the rescue. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke
The wrestling team in March 2015. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

“I thought to myself ‘Okay that’s interesting,’” she says. “And then I started looking around and the whole team had pink shoelaces on. They were all showing their support for me. It stopped me dead in my tracks.”

But that wasn’t the end of the team’s generosity. They had secretly nominated Falke to be a recipient for the KWF award, and she had been chosen. So, at the end of the year banquet, the whole wrestling team (Falke’s son included) presented her with a trip to that stunning lake house in Georgia.

The lake house gives new life

A week after leaving the lake house, Falke signed up to volunteer with KWF and share as much as she could about her own personal experience. For many cancer patients and their families, taking a trip or a vacation is often the last thing on their minds. But Falke is a firm believer, not only in KWF’s unique way of caring for patients and their families, but that her week at the lake house changed her life.

“The trip put the living back in me,” she tells me. “Looking back on it, my family vacation was exactly what we needed. I didn’t know it at the time but I guess the bottom line is this: I didn’t know what I really needed but the Foundation knew. It restored my faith in humanity.”

Lori (front row, second from the left) with the Xavier University women’s basketball team. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

It’s not uncommon for people to face new identities over the course of their lives—mother, husband, employee, even cancer survivor. But what makes Falke’s story so remarkable is that she completely transformed her life to fill this new role.

Falke’s desire to get involved with KWF progressed from volunteering at a few events to helping fundraise to ultimately becoming the Co-Chair of Recipient Ambassadors and sitting on the Board of Directors, where she now helps plan fundraisers and oversees all recipients who want to get further involved with the foundation. Even Falke’s husband raises money for KWF by competing in triathlons and Ironman competitions.

Lori and Dan in September 2018. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke
Lori will often leave notes for Dan along his race route. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

“I want to help other people who have been in my shoes, who maybe have just found out that they have cancer or need help deciphering what doctor to go to, things like that,” she says. “I’ve been in touch with people who were very recently diagnosed and I’m able to offer some emotional support. I can share my experience with them.”

Falke has also become the unofficial KWF baker, thanks to her one-of-a-kind sugar cookies.

“I just started tweaking this one recipe that I had, added some designs to it, and people loved it,” she says. “So I bring them to pretty much every KWF event or fundraiser now.”

Cookies featuring the Karen Wellington Foundation flower. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke
More of Lori’s beautiful sugar cookies. | Photo courtesy of Lori Falke

Famous cookies aside, when asked how her life has changed since being diagnosed with cancer, Falke believes she has found a greater purpose.

“Out of how horrible the disease is, there are a lot of blessings that can come out of it. Even just the way I live my life now. I think my purpose is to live, to live and to give. And take more trips.”